Deep Frying Tofu

Black Pepper Tofu is one of Chris’ favorite dishes from Plenty by Ottolenghi. The book says it’s Chinese but it features Kecap Manis a Indonesian caramel sweet soy sauce which to my knowledge is never used in traditional Chinese cooking.  In short, deep fried tofu is drench in a sauce of kecap manis, Chinese light and dark soy sauces with plenty of sauteed shallots, ginger, garlic, red chillies and black pepper.

This recipe is almost perfect as a make-ahead dinner party dish because the flavors of the aromatics and the sauce mingle and develop when kept overnight in a refrigerator. The problem is that the deep fried tofu can’t hold its crispiness in the sauce for more than 10 minutes. I’m not expecting the crunch to hold up in the sauce overnight but if the tofu can remain crispy for an hour or two, then the sauce can be cooked the night before and the tofu fried just before the party.

A quick google search turned up this excellent post How To Cook Crispy Tofu Worth Eating from seriouseats.com. Tips from the post:

1) Start with non-siken firm tofu – I’m already doing that.

2) Dry the tofu before frying – The post recommends slicing the tofu then pour hot salted water over the slices and dry between pieces of paper towels. Previously, I just slice the tofu, dry with paper towels once and deep fry them immediately after dusting with corn flour. I followed the blog advice this time –  blanched the tofu and dry. I had to change the paper towels (double layered) 3 times before they were satisfactorily dry (paper towel remains dry for 1 minute).

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3) Coat with a batter of corn flour and vodka – The seriouseats.com post conducted a series of experiments with Korean Fried Chicken and concluded that coasting tofu with a batter of cornstarch and vodka results in a superior crust compared to a mere dusting or corn flour (or rice flour, potato flour and combination). The finding that cornstarch is the best starch for crispy deep fried food is confirmed by a issue of Cook’s Illustrated so I did not attempt to reconfirm this result. Instead, the focal point of my test was to find out if a corn starch-vodka batter is indeed superior to a water-corn starch batter and a seltzer-corn starch batter.

Method

I split the 1 block of tofu into 4 sets:

  • Dry corn starch dusting (Control)
  • Batter of water and corn starch (1 tbsp liquid + 1 tbsp corn starch)
  • Batter of seltzer water and corn starch (1 tbsp liquid + 1 tbsp corn starch)
  • Batter of vodka and corn starch ( 1 tbsp liquid + 1 tbsp corn starch)

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I heated the peanut oil to 350 °F (tested with a instant read thermometer), and lowered each batch of tofu into the oil for 4 minutes, flipping once at 2 minutes. The temperature of the oil was tested and adjusted between the batches.

Yep, there was less tofu in the Control batch because I took some out to boil for Miss Clarey. On hindsight I should take taken a cube from each batch so that the amount of tofu deep fried each time would remain constant.

The tofu were then mixed with the sauce in 4 separate dishes.

Result

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I wanted to test if the tofu would remain crisp after 1 hour but it was 8 pm by the time I was done so we just gave it a 10 minutes rest.

It was obvious that all 3 of the battered tofu were crispy and crunchier than the Control batch (dry dusting). Even though I dried the tofu more thoroughly then usual, there didn’t seem to be any improvement compared to my previous attempt. In fact all the tofu coated in batter (liquid + corn starch) did better, which caused me to revisit the wisdom of drying the tofu thoroughly. The blog post I referred to didn’t explain the rationale and from various other recipes, it seems like the drying of tofu is mainly to allow the tofu to absorb more marinate. Since there is no marinate in this recipe, maybe drying the tofu and then just applying a dry dusting of cornstarch was actually counter productive since it seems that liquid+cornstarch resulted in better texture.

Among the 3 test batches, the vodka-cornstarch batter coating resulted in the crispiest crust which remain crispy at the end of dinner (about 30 minutes after mixing with the sauce). The other two were less crispy and got progressively so with time.

Conclusion

So it’s definitely a vodka-corn starch batter for deep frying tofu next time and even if I’m out of vodka, water and cornstarch is better than just a dusting of corn starch.

Crispy Tofu with Minced Chicken

To cut the long story short, this is THE RECIPE but if you are in the mood, here is the story.

On a particularly lazy afternoon, I found a pack of silken tofu in the fridge and just couldn’t remember which recipe I bought it for. I usually consult a few of a favorite cook books on Saturday morning, pick out 3-4 recipes and do grocery shopping with a shopping list compiled from the menu for the week. This strategy does cut down on the amount of food which goes to waste, except occasions like this when I just can’t remember what the item was intended for…

It’s not me, I blame it on the lingering pregnancy brain. Oh well the tofu still needed to be cooked but every recipe in my trusty cookbooks required at least another ingredient I didn’t have and I didn’t feel like going for a grocery run with Miss Clarey just for 1 ingredient. (My life is full of BIG problems isn’t it?). Anyway thanks to my laziness, I came up with this recipe, with some inspiration from Harumi Kurihara’s Tofu with a Spicy Minced Meat Sauce Recipe.

Ingredients

  • 1 block soft/silken tofu
  • About 3 tbsp corn starch for dusting
  • 3 oz ground chicken breast
  • 1¼ cup dashi stock (or 1 tsp dashi instant powder with 1¼ cup water)
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce (preferably koikuchi)
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp sake
  • 2 tbsp mirin
  • 2 cloves garkic
  • ½ oz fresh ginger, peeled
  • 1 tbsp corn starch mixed with 1 tbsp water
  • 2 scallions, finely sliced – for ganishing
  • 1 tsp white sesame seeds (roasted) – for ganishing
  • 1 red cayene or fresno pepper, finely sliced – for ganishing
  • peanut oil or other oil with high smoke point for deep frying
  • 1 tbsp sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp canola oil or other vegetable oil

Not all silken tofu are created equal. Some are so soft I can never get them out of their package in one piece, let alone dusting them in corn starch and deep frying them. After some failures with silken tofu, my preferred brand is Azumaya.

Method

I actually had homemade dashi made from kombu and freshly shaved katsuobushi because cH made extra dashi that weekend. Yipee, I love homemade dashi but am too lazy to make it myself. So I combined the precious dashi, soy sauce sugar sake and mirin in a bowl , finely chop the garlic and ginger AND even managed to drain and wrap the tofu in paper towels before Clarey woke up.

The cayenne is from my garden!

The cayenne was from my garden!

After she was fed and happy, I heated the canola oil over medium-high in a saute pan and fried the garlic and ginger for about 1 minute, followed by the ground chicken. While the chicken was browning, I drizzled in the sesame oil, working the oil into the lean ground chicken. I would probably skip the sesame oil if I had ground chicken thigh meat, but I didn’t…

When the chicken was browned, the dashi mixture goes into the pan and as left to simmer over low heat for 15 minutes.

A previous attempt to deep fry a whole block of silken tofu for another recipe didn’t work so well, so this time I cut the block of tofu into 4, dusted each piece in cornstarch and deep fried each block in peanut oil heated to 375 °F separately.

phew, at least they still looked decent

phew, at least they still looked decent

Into the pan goes the cornstarch mixture to thicken things up. After about 30 seconds of stirring, the sauce thicken enough to coat the back of the spoon so I took the pan off the heat and poured the chicken mixture over the tofu and sprinkled with the scallion, cayenne and sesame seeds.

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Rice please!

FINAL RECIPE (or just the recipe in this case, since I was happy with my first attempt)

  • 1 block soft/silken tofu, drained and wrapped in paper towels for at least 10 minutes
  • About 3 tbsp corn starch for dusting
  • 3 oz ground chicken breast
  • 1¼ cup dashi stock (or 1 tsp dashi instant powder with 1¼ cup water)
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce (preferably koikuchi)
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp sake
  • 2 tbsp mirin
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • ½ oz fresh ginger, peeled
  • 1 tbsp corn starch mixed with 1 tbsp water
  • 2 scallions, finely sliced – for ganishing
  • 1 tsp white sesame seeds (roasted) – for ganishing
  • 1 red cayene or fresno pepper, finely sliced – for ganishing
  • peanut oil or other oil with high smoke point for deep frying
  • 1 tbsp sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp canola oil or other vegetable oil
  1. Drain the silken tofu and wrap in at least 3 layers of paper towels.
  2. Finely chop the ginger and garlic.
  3. In a small bowl, mix the dashi, soy sauce, mirin, sake and sugar.
  4. Heat the 1 tbsp canola/vegetable oil in a saute pan over medium high heat, brown the garlic and ginger for 1 minute.
  5. Brown the ground chicken while folding in the sesame oil.
  6. Add in the dashi mixture and allow to simmer over low heat for 15 minutes.
  7. Meanwhile, heat about 1 inch of oil to 375 °F in a small sauce pan. Cut the drained tofu into 4 pieces and coat each piece in cornstarch just right before lowering into the oil . Fry each piece separately till lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Allow to drain on a plate lined with paper towels.
  8. Add the cornstarch to the dashi-chicken mixture and stir for about 30 seconds till the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
  9. Pour the sauce over the tofu (remove the paper towels first!) and garnish with the sliced scallions, chilies and sesame seeds.